At the annual J Street conference in Washington, DC, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami discussed new opportunities for outreach for the liberal advocacy group.
Ben-Ami, who founded the group eight years ago and serves as its president, expressed a willingness to work on common goals with members and offices of the new administration.
“We would never legitimize Islamophobia, racism, the refugee ban,” said Ben-Ami. “We’re going to continue to oppose those issues. But if the administration is working on a way to resolve them, we would work with them on a transitional basis.”
Ben-Ami was asked if he saw J Street defining itself as a full-out oppositional movement to the Trump administration, i.e. if the Trump administration was treif, not to be touched, or was it a place where J Street could do business if there was that opportunity?
“J Street has had a set of principles from Day One,“ he responded. “A two-state solution, the notion of what it is to be pro-Israel and pro-peace. To the extent that this administration doesn’t promote a two-state solution, or has opposition to our values, then we will oppose it.”
As for a Middle East peace deal, Ben-Ami believes it’s out there. “But if they listen to a David Friedman, there probably isn’t that much to talk about,” he said. “We’re here if they’re partners to work with.” High on J Street’s priorities, he said, was protecting the nuclear deal with Iran. “The President ran on a position to dismantle the deal. We’re now 10 weeks into the administration, and we will fight to keep the deal.”
J Street has reached out to Friedman, the nominee for ambassador to Israel, through an intermediary. “A group of rabbis met with him and told us, ‘We met with him and he’s not such a bad guy, why are you making such a big deal?’” Ben-Ami told reporters. “Well, we’d like to meet with him as well, but have not gotten a response from either him or those rabbis.” As for Friedman’s infamous comment in which he referred to J Streeters as “kapos,” Ben-Ami said that while he had heard that Friedman called the ADL to apologize, he had not done so to them.
“We have substantive policy differences with him,” said Ben-Ami. “But frankly, that’s not enough for him to not be an ambassador.” He listed three red flags: Friedman’s views, which are far out of the mainstream of bipartisan foreign policy, his utter lack of experience in foreign policy, and the alarming temperament and disposition he has displayed in his actions and writings.
Would it be a win for every Democrat to vote against him? “Yes,” he said. “We may not get every Democrat, but the level of opposition to him would be unprecedented.”
Asked about a vocal minority of American Jews who fill the letters pages of Jewish publications with vitriol against J Street, Ben-Ami referred to a Friedman fundraiser the night before the election, where he said that J Street was both a horrible group, and that half their board is Arab. “Well first of all, what’s wrong with that?” he asked. “But the fact is, this minority lives in these echo chambers, so that what they read and hear becomes truth. The majority hold a more rational view, but they’ve got other things going on,” he said. “They are fighting poverty, global warming, women’s issues and other causes, and their money, their donations and their time are in a wide range of things.” What J Street is trying to do is reach a large group of people who are less engaged.
“They think I have eight legs and horns,” he said, “when the truth is that my father was out rescuing Jews.”
Ben-Ami is the son of the late Yitzhak Ben-Ami, who was active in bringing Jews from Europe to Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, founded the American Friends for Illegal Immigration to Palestine, which was then British-occupied, and helped organize the Committee for a Jewish Army and the Emergency Committee to save the Jewish People of Europe. He also served as executive director of the American League for a Free Palestine. In June of 1948, he was on an Irgun ship that attempted to bring weapons to Israel; the operation was thwarted and the ship was destroyed.
His son hopes that with more of an opening with centrist Jewish groups, J Street is poised for growth. “I do hope there is something happening in the Jewish community,” said Ben-Ami. “We’ve been around for eight years, and as we’ve articulated our positions over and over, I hope that we are starting to be heard,” he said. “Hillel directors can see the J Street students working on college campuses and see how great they are. Maybe some of the apprehension will go away.”
J Street has been overwhelmingly focused on the Israel-Palestine issue, but lately, also on refugees and Islamophobia. “Are you going to be involved in Black Lives Matter?” an attendee asked. “The first paper we wrote referred to Islamophobia,” Ben-Ami responded. “We say treating others as you would want to be treated yourself applies to every other issue.
“We were refugees, we were immigrants, this country closed its doors to us — so it’s very important for others, too,” he said.